I want to take an opportunity to share a blog post from What Can You Do? The Campaign for Disability Employment (CDE) in May celebrating Mental Health Awareness. CDE was founded by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and acts as a collaborative for several organizations within the disability and employment communities, with a focus on breaking down stigma and misconceptions that stand in the way of employment equality for people with disabilities.

My Uncommon Experience with a Mental Health Condition at Work shares the experience of a good friend of mine, Andy Imparato. I have known Andy for many years and admire him for his success in his field, as well as his unwavering commitment to the disability community. Andy is a former president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, worked with Tom Harkin in the disability policy area, on the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and is currently the executive director for the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). Andy is also a person living with a mental health disability, bipolar disorder.

Mental health is a disability that is frequently misunderstood and stigmatized in American culture, limiting opportunities in the workplace. Some of these myths include the belief that people with mental health disabilities cannot handle stressful work environments, are not able to manage their disabilities, and pose a danger to others in the workplace. However, the truth is that many people with mental health disabilities work successfully in high demand positions, oftentimes with the people around them not knowing that they even have a disability. Because mental health disabilities impact each individual differently, treatment and management of the symptoms of a mental health disability differs from one person to the next. The majority of people with mental health disabilities are able to manage their disability effectively. And while there are often sensationalized stories supporting the misconception that people with mental health disabilities are dangerous, there is no evidence to support this myth. Rather, people with mental health disabilities are more likely to be victimized than to be the ones initiating violence.

Due to stigma, people with mental health disabilities regularly feel the need to hide their disability from coworkers and supervisors for fear of discrimination, and yet mental health affects an estimated one in five Americans. As Andy shares in his blog, being in an employment situation where one feels comfortable disclosing a mental health disability is uncommon.

There are however some tips for employers who are looking to create an environment where employees with mental health disabilities are comfortable in disclosing their disability without fear of discrimination.

Take a clear stance on accommodations. Most employers focus the offering of accommodations for employees with disabilities on those who have visible disabilities. Understanding what is needed to accommodate a person by providing a piece of software, an interpreter, or an accessible facility is easier for employers and allows them to develop a plan for success. However, with many non-visible disabilities, such as mental health disabilities, providing accommodations should include an individualized approach, to ensure the best path for success. Recording accommodations options that have the ability to be effective, based on job roles within the organization, can help to make this process smoother. Additionally, including examples of accommodations provided that are appropriate for people with mental health disabilities, along with discussion of accommodations for people with visible disabilities, fosters the feeling that requesting such an accommodation will not be perceived to have a negative impact on the perception of the employee’s ability to perform their job.

Eliminate harassment and bullying. People with mental health disabilities frequently are victims of harassment and bullying throughout their lives and are more likely to experience workplace harassment, due to their disability. Many people don’t think about how their language perpetuates a cultural dynamic that makes it difficult for a person with a mental health disability to be open about their disability. Ensuring that it is culturally unacceptable to demean or disparage people with mental health disabilities will increase the engagement of people with mental health disabilities and begin to build trust with people within this community.

Provide training to supervisors and managers. Ensure those who have the closest relationship or most direct contact with your workforce understand and portray the company’s stance on mental health disability inclusion. This represents a crucial step in ensuring an inclusive culture and promotes the willingness for those within the mental health community to disclose. Providing training will also help those who serve in these roles to feel more comfortable in providing helpful resources and building success for their team members who have mental health disabilities. It is not enough to say it at the top – workers need to feel the commitment at all levels within the organization.

Promote cultural acceptance through team member networks. Team member networks or business resource groups have the ability to strongly impact success in building an inclusive environment for people with mental health disabilities, by creating an open dialogue with employees who have disabilities to get first hand feedback on how the company’s policies and practices demonstrate commitment to inclusion in this area. These team member networks  can assist companies in bridging the gap between where they are now and where they would like to be.

As we do more to ensure we are building a workforce that is inclusive of people with disabilities, including those with mental health disabilities, it is important to remember to see beyond the myths. My friend Andy, with his choice to be open about his mental health disability, gives us all a chance to see beyond the stigma and think about what we can do to enact change to change his story from being an ‘uncommon experience’ to a celebration of a truly diverse workforce.

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